The Perception of Merit

Academia runs on a prestige economy. The opportunities you are afforded and the resources you have access to in very large part depend on your reputation for skill in your chosen field. What is more, we mostly internalise this - we would like not only to do well but to be seen and acknowledged to do well. This latter is considered disreputable and to own to it something of a guilty secret; but it seems to me plainly true that the vast majority of academics would like to be prestigious as can be. Nor does it seem so obviously bad - there is nothing even apparently wrong with wanting people to think well of you, and think well of you (what's more) for contributing to the long quest for knowledge. So why is it so miserable?

Today's post is about that desire for prestige, from the point of view of somebody who struggles with it. It's kinda bad armchair sociology, but (with tongue in cheek please don't hurt me actual sociologists) I mean it to be somewhat phenomenological - this is a report of how things seem to me, so if I am wrong in generalising I am at least giving you a sense of my own anxieties. I just want to think about why this desire for prestige causes so much unhappiness in academia beyond the obvious two reasons: one feels one is prestigious in some way but does not deserve to be, or one feels one deserves to be prestigious in some way but you are not.

I'll need some distinctions (yes I know I should read more Bourdieu, he's on the list). Divide academic reputation up into three types. There is prestige attached to position -- the department one works for, the career stage one is at, whether one has a named chair, just in general the prestige attached to occupying a role. There is prestige attached to achievement -- here I mean prestige attached to publishing, and especially in certain venues, and being cited, or winning awards, or having established priority on some novel discovery of interest, or being known to have given a talk at conferences of sufficiently high standing, etc. Then there is prestige attached to persona -- this one is a bit harder to succinctly summarise with examples, but it happens that one can get a general reputation for skill or brilliance that precedes one's publications or which is not especially attached to any office one holds. An unpublished grad student in a lowly department can none the less have a high reputation if there is a "buzz" around them, and I mean the prestige attached to persona to pick out whatever makes this possible.

It's no secret that there is considerable luck attached to the prestige of position and even much of the prestige of achievement. One of my favourite social epistemology papers is an exploration of how prestige hierarchies (related here most directly to prestige of accomplishment) might come about by sheer luck. More readably here was a nice recent post on one person's personal experience of such luck in attaining prestige of position. One day I should write my own such narrative, for it's just as chancey that I am here. And I have posted on before this has been oft observed by academic sociologists, going back as far as the discipline - with Weber famously saying:
Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If a young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you; without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally one always receives the answer: ``Of course, I live only for my `calling'''. Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.
And contemporary life may have added new ways for this to arise. It seems quite possible, for instance, that being witty on Twitter shall contribute to prestige of persona, despite being only very loosely related (if at all) with any of the things that we should like the perception of merit to track.

I don't think it takes the sociological insight of a Weber (or a Merton or a Du Bois) to notice that luck and prejudice play a considerable role in attaining these various types of prestige. So what prompts this state of affairs is I think this: we all know that the perception of merit is only loosely correlated with anything that we might reasonably be proud of. So while I said above that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be well liked for making useful contributions to the worthy cause of knowledge, I think that much of the anguish surrounding the quest for prestige is actually this sort of epistemic asymmetry - it is much easier to get reliable information that one is doing badly. Someone points out an invalidity in one's argument or mode of statistical analysis, an error in some point of fact, an unintended and evidently morally bad consequence of one's view - such things can often be quickly recognised to be fair when they are so. Whereas to get a reliable signal that one is doing well is very hard. For, in our prestige economy what we largely rely on is other people's estimation that we are doing well and their doling out of such goods as get us the prestige of position or accomplishment. So beyond just first order disagreements with how the prestige hierarchy has shaped up, there is also the constant anxiety of asymmetric uncertainty - the knowledge you are wrong combined with the justified fear that none of the evidence that you are doing well is probative.

Ok but even there - I think the anxiety of this uncertainty is also quickly apparent on reflection so I have probably belaboured the point. What is more, I suspect this worry is overblown. While I think that evidential asymmetry exists, I am also persuaded that one really does (to some extent) make one's own luck, so the fact that one is in a position to get lucky shouldn't be wrote off as mere noise.

What I think might be less obvious is the way the different types of prestige interact to create anxiety. Here is my suspicion: prestige of the person is the least worthy and most desirable of types of prestige in the credit economy. Least worthy because - it is most likely to be unrelated to merit or accomplishment, and what we want (or, rather, want to want) is to be lovable based on actual merit or accomplishment. But most desirable of types of prestige for two reasons. First, I suspect it is easiest to convert into the other types of prestige. Someone with a buzz around them gains an advantage in getting a job, their work is received in a more excited and charitable fashion, and they will be approached at workshops and conferences and so have more of a chance to actually get feedback and develop their ideas. Second, it has a certain intrinsic quality which the other two lack. I suspect the underlying phenomenology of desire is that one wants a fancy chair or fancy publication because it will lead to people thinking of you as fancy - whereas there need not be any deeper reason to want people to think well of you just in your person. Here I am leaning most especially on phenomenology: it just seems to make sense to me to want to have a positive aura or buzz around one's person in a way that it seems odd to me to want a Nature publication just for its own sake. So that is another reason I think the quest for prestige is miserable - in our hearts we know we want the wrong thing.

I have been thinking of this as an Audenite reading of the credit economy of science, because for some reason it reminds me of some lines from September 1, 1939:

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Something about this desire to stand out being simultaneously widely shared and shameful resonates. It is the academic version of original sin. We find ourselves with a desire for credit or esteem. There are easily available to us nearby rationales for this which might be reputable - we want to achieve great things (prestige of accomplishment) and to have the community reflect that when allocating awards (prestige of position). But we suspect of ourselves that, actually, we don't want anything so noble - we just want a contentless positive buzz (prestige of persona) and know there is no excuse. Not universal love, but to be loved alone.

Anyway, if this is right, maybe the more apt lines from Auden come elsewhere in the poem. He has our number in academia, at least, when he worries that...

... we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.


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